In Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011
I’ve spent my adult life refusing to envision an obituary for Marie. I planned with all my conscious powers never to read one, and I promised myself that I would never have to write one. Along with her family and her great caravan of other friends, I celebrated Marie’s determination to put herself in harm’s way, to “bear witness” as a foreign correspondent in so many parts of the world — Lebanon, Libya, Israel, the Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Iraq — and waited each time she went out on assignment, fretting, for her to signal the all-clear. “Will call when I’m outta here,” she would write as she filed her last story from the danger zone.
From our mid-20s until yesterday, that fragile insistence of mine mostly held. There were terrifying moments, and Marie was gravely wounded in 2001; caught in a firefight in Sri Lanka, she lost sight in one eye and nearly died from shrapnel wounds. But she survived, and when she arrived back in New York, we went together to interview opthalmological surgeons (waving away, regretfully, the very handsome young doctor who eagerly auditioned with his grasp of geopolitics), shopped for eye patches and drank quite a lot of Champagne. I didn’t stop worrying after that, but my hope swelled to a greater confidence. Marie took the greatest possible precautions in conflict areas, so far from rash or merely impulsive that other journalists often looked to her for guidance on the risk calculus of a given situation. She focused on bringing back the story and didn’t dwell personally on the dire circumstances in which she found herself except insofar as they served her formidable powers of description and, often, hilarity.
I look back over the last year or so of scattered emails, sitting there innocently in the queue. She wrote last June: “I am STILL in Misrata, Libya, and the ever brutal Gadaffi is ruining any chance of a social life or indeed a life by selfishly refusing to Go. Despite all the graffiti on walls here giving excellent advice, "Just Go!" I had one of my best offers ever today. A rebel fighter on the front ambled over, on his break from firing, so to speak, and said, "Hey, do you want to shoot the mortar?" It is definitely a sign that I may have been here too long because I REALLY WANTED TO SHOOT THE MORTAR. I mean, when will I ever get a chance to shoot a mortar again?”
A couple of days later: “I am sitting in the gloaming on the stern of a Turkish boat in Misurata harbor, looking out over an ugly seascape of cranes and broken concrete and blasted buildings from months of bombing. I am finally homeward bound, a day's
The August 2012 issue of Vanity Fair includes a long article on Marie Colvin's life and work, by Marie Brenner:
journey to Benghazi, a few days in the rebel capital for a story then an overnight drive to Cairo. It gives one respect for travel, having to run the spectrum of transport. It will be strange coming out of this world that, however mad, has a simplicity to it of sand and courage and bombs and sleep and canned tuna and a few shirts, washed out in a bowl when the dust threatens to take over.”
A bit farther on, there’s an invitation to connect with her on LinkedIn, which prompted some hazing about whether she was trying to beat the rap on her famously abysmal grasp of basic networking technology (she used a satellite phone but was flummoxed by her iPhone). In truth, she was a technical wizard of a different sort, a skilled sailor who had done a lot of deep-water racing and had recently, proudly, earned her yachtmaster qualification. She grew up sailing in Long Island Sound, and the loss of vision had slowed her down not a bit.
There’s a quick back and forth toward fall on a subject we talked about often by phone and during our last couple of visits — me going to London, where she lived, or her coming to California, where I am. She kept saying she wanted to spend less time in the Middle East and more time at home — and on the ocean. She had briefly tried a desk job at her paper, the Times of London, but of course it drove her nuts. Still, the job was getting more perilous. Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist killed in Misrata in April 2011, had been very generously helping me on a book I was editing about Liberia, where he’d spent a good deal of time. Marie knew about the project and had written me: “Weirdly, I went by the place today where Tim and [photographer] Chris Hondros were killed. A shiver of mortality. The forecourt of the car repair shop still bears the mark of the mortar shell that killed them, and a starburst of chips in the concrete where the metal flew out as shrapnel.”
Around Thanksgiving, the messages trail off for a bit, as they often did. But even when I didn’t know exactly where she was, I didn’t worry desperately. I was used to periods of silence, plus there was a group of us that always passed around bits of her itinerary. Sightings by other journalists would filter back or someone would see her on CNN or hear her on NPR. She knew she could call day or night, and I could always reach at least her voice — I was thinking tonight that her cell is probably still on, with its years-old, soft and slightly lilting greeting. But I couldn’t bear to hear it now so I won’t try. Christmas Day she was there in my inbox, brief but joyful.
A couple of weeks ago, Marie wrote that she was going to Syria. I think her colleagues were uneasy, and I know now that several of our friends tried to talk her out of it. I felt fairly calm, which just goes to show you how great is the power of willful optimism. In the last email I have from her, she wrote: “I am now in Beirut, negotiating with smugglers to get me across the border. After six weeks in Libya this year, under shelling and that low level of anxiety every day brings, I had said I'll do a bit less of the hot spots, but what is happening in Syria, especially Homs, is criminal, so I am once again, knapsack on back with my satellite phone and computer, clambering across a dark border.”
I was fast asleep in my bed in Berkeley yesterday when Marie was killed in Homs. I woke up to what the world was learning — that the house she and several others were camping out in had been hit by rockets; that with Marie in the lead, the group had just run down the stairs to the front door when a blast obliterated the entryway; that a 28-year-old French photographer, Remi Ochlik, also died, and three others were wounded. Right now, all of us are panicked about the condition of the injured journalists, not knowing whether rescue workers will be allowed in to Homs to get them. It brings me back to those frantic, terrible hours in 2001 when all we knew was that Marie was wounded in Sri Lanka and had yet to be evacuated.
I have been walking around all day talking to her, asking her dumbly where she is. Ever since we first met and became roommates in college, we’ve been inseparable in one way or another. In that same last email she said we should charter a boat this summer — sail merrily to the ends of the earth: “More when I am back from Syria. I love you very much.”
The phones and email and all the rest have been humming with misery, and with Marie’s love. So many wonderful people adored her and she them that I’ve been swathed in stunned, overflowing warmth all day. At the same time, it’s impossible to believe she’s dead, but then I’m scared of the moment when it will be impossible not to.
Marie’s dedication to “bearing witness” — trying to bring the world’s attention, and outrage, to the suffering of the people of Syria (and elsewhere) - is being referenced over and over in the international media. Something else she often said was, “I go into these places by choice, but the people I am covering have no choice. They will still be in mortal danger when I get to come home.” How I wish that were still the horribly unfair truth.